A new year begins with a new police chief for the city of McFarland, which has had its woes in finding someone who will last more than a couple of years. City officials hope to name a new chief soon this month. You'll recall the city restarted its police department in 2010 after contracting for police services for 17 years with the Kern County Sheriff's Office. Things haven't exactly been smooth sailing ever since, with a number of questionable hires being made among officers who had dubious records with past law enforcement agencies.

The last police chief, Scot Kimble, wound up getting convicted in February of last year when he misappropriated McFarland city funds when he intentionally added unearned hours to an officer’s payroll time sheets in consideration for the officer’s work remodeling parts of Kimble’s home. Kimble suddenly left McFarland and took over as police chief in Arvin where he was working before getting getting busted for his misdeeds in McFarland. A Google search will yield numerous stories (sad but true) about the city's poorly managed police department. And residents of this economically disadvantaged farm worker community are paying for it in several ways.

That's why hiring an honest, ethical and transparent police chief is important. And in McFarland's case, being bilingual is a must. Just as important is the hiring process under which city officials are vetting their next choice.

According to interim assistant city manager Laura Hanlon, three finalists — all men — are in the running and all are undergoing background checks. Two of them are from Kern County and the other is from outside the county. Hanlon herself is a former officer, retiring as lieutenant from Cathedral City Police Department with 29 years in law enforcement. Later she started her own business, Concept Leadership Development, which is a consulting firm for law enforcement. Hanlon was hired by McFarland as a consultant in April 2020. A few months later in August, the consultant contract ended and the city then hired her as interim assistant city manager at $60,000 a year.

One of her main duties is to provide operational oversight of the city's police department as well as help coordinate the hiring of the new police chief. Hanlon established two panels to review and interview the applicants, with one panel composed of the police chiefs of Taft, Shafter, Tehachapi, the acting chief of McFarland and Kern County Sheriff Donny Youngblood. The other is a community panel consisting of five McFarland community leaders. Hanlon also reviewed the applications.

According to people familiar with the hiring process, one of the candidates for the top job is Charles Sherman. Sherman also happens to be listed as a "facilitator" and a training instructor for the same company owned by Hanlon. According to the biography on the company's website, Sherman retired from the Bakersfield Police Department and also worked for the Kern County Sheriff's Office in corrections. He is listed as currently working as an investigator for the Kern County District Attorney's Office. Could this be a conflict of interest, in that Sherman is tied to the same company owned by the person who will have a say in choosing the next police chief?

Hanlon would not confirm who the three finalists are, but said there would be no conflict of interest if Sherman was on the short list.

"Like any business, we meet people along the way and opportunities come about," said Hanlon. Prior to being hired as a consultant and then interim assistant city manager, Hanlon was first brought on board in February 2020 as deputy police chief by interim police chief Janet Davis. Like Sherman, Davis was also listed — until recently — as a "facilitator" and training instructor for Concept Leadership Development.

"Janet Davis became familiar with who I was and recommended me for positions that became available because she felt I was the best fit," said Hanlon, who added that she did not profit from having Sherman and Davis as facilitators for her company. Davis has since left her position with McFarland.

So why does any of this matter? Because McFarland really needs to clean up its act, especially with its police department entrusted with protecting people's lives and property. And doesn't it start at the top, with city officials choosing the best person for police chief? And making the process as transparent as possible?

Hanlon said she wants the next police chief to be a person of high integrity, be as transparent on the job as the law allows, and be a good fit for the community as well as the police department and a hard worker. All admirable qualities. She has a say in who the next police chief will be, but she made it clear she has no problem in saying "no" to friends or acquaintances who apply for a job but are unqualified.

City Manager Maria Lara is the one who will ultimately choose and recommend to the City Council the top choice for police chief. Then the City Council will give its approval. But the City Council should not be a rubber stamp. Council members need to raise questions, be willing to ask the tough questions before the city manager makes a recommendation. Each candidate applying for the job is required to fill out a lengthy form called a personal history statement, a document that asks, among other things, to list any issues they may have had with being investigated or disciplined for improper conduct while employed by another police agency. City Council members should demand to be given access to read that document, as they will be the ones who have the final say in hiring the next police chief.

The people of McFarland deserve nothing less than to have someone in such a sensitive position as police chief be someone the community feels they can trust.

Contributing columnist Jose Gaspar is a news anchor/reporter for Telemundo Bakersfield and KGET. Email him at elcompa29@gmail.com. The views expressed here are his own.